Flora’s Story

This is a guest post – I asked the author to write out her feelings on living in Greece now, and she duly did. Here is her story.

A while ago a friend suggested that I write about my experiences as an Australian here in Greece, living through the current crisis. I agreed that I would do so, but it’s taken me a long time to sit down and actually put pen to paper, or rather, do the digital equivalent of letting my fingers dance across the keyboard and letting them express through their staccato symphony the thoughts and feelings that are churning through my heart and mind during this exceptionally difficult period for me. I have gone through many years of uncertainty, loneliness, and depression, but no period of my life has challenged me as this past year has.

Boy, that sounds bleak. But the end of my Australian work contract in March 2014 was a catalyst for my venturing into a new stage of my life, one that was utterly unplanned and uncharted. As far as I knew, I was simply heading overseas to see family and to holiday in Archaggelos, Rhodes, after the death of my grandmother. This bereavement hurt my mother as nothing else has for over two decades, though I greeted the event with a mixture of grief and relief. Relief as, by that time, my grandmother did nothing but suffer each day unable to recognise her loved ones anymore, unable to communicate, unable to eat or clean herself. I occasionally stumble across short videos I’d recorded of her on my computer and my heart lurches in my ribcage and squirms like a frightened animal – I loved her only as one could love somebody they’d gotten to know on the phone, and by seeing for two to three months every year or two. I wish I’d had the chance to know her better, to speak with her, to hear her stories, to see the light in her eyes, to hear the cadences of her voice, to feel everything she felt as she spoke. My mother loved her as she has loved no-one else, apart from me. I had never seen such acute and crippling grief before the day I had to tell her that her mother had passed. She instantly cried out ‘no, no, my mother, my mother’, she tore her top off, and bent over the sink, sobs racking her body. I was unable to contain my own sadness, and we both let the tide crash over us for what seemed forever. My mother, understandably, has not been the same since.

But I digress. I arrived in Greece with my mother, and we set up a little life in the house my grandparents had been living in shortly before. The house, though charming, was in desperate need of renovation and, lacking most modern amenities, it wasn’t particularly comfortable. But I spent most of my time across the way with my mother’s younger cousin and her two daughters, both of whom are younger than me. They are lovely people. Simple, village people, stereotypical though that may sound. They are people content with a very simple life. Time was spent with family chatting or watching films or discussing the events or news of the day, and there wasn’t much else to it. I spoke of Australia with nostalgia colouring my voice, and they with wonder and awe in theirs as they asked about every conceivable part of life down under, from food to entertainment to transport to the life of the Greeks there. It felt like a distant paradise, a life that was not altogether satisfying, but one that I still missed very much.

You see, my problem in the village was that I felt that there was no-one I could be myself with, I could have fun with, or talk to about things that I enjoyed or that interested me. I was, therefore, not very talkative. I did my best, but I am reserved and weigh and filter my words to an incredible degree at the best of times, and not having people to relate to didn’t help. Somehow, the months until June rolled slowly by, until my mother one day was inspired to commence renovating the house. I can’t remember if the light bulb flickered on before or after her idea that we should relocate to Rhodes because she had grown tired of ξενιτιά, life away from the motherland, and because I had been lonely and unfulfilled and restless all my life. And with my work contract having ended, and with my boss informing me by email that my replacement was happy to stay on permanently and take on my role as junior lawyer, I thought that it might be fate showing me a new path. I have always been like that, after huge periods of stagnation, I rouse myself to make great changes. This seemed like just the cure for whatever was ailing me, for the wanderlust that had stained my skin and seeped into my blood. So, the renovation of the house began, and we managed to renovate the front bedroom (which was mine), the living room and the front half of the hallway between all the different rooms. Shopping for paint colours and furniture was stressful but enjoyable, and we managed to furnish the ‘new’ rooms the day before we were due to fly out. The final night in Greece I spent lying on a plastic-coated mattress to get a couple of hours of rest before we were to be driven to the airport for our long and exhausting flights home.

My return to Australia, I remember, was a happy one. I got to see the friends I had dearly missed, and got to sleep in my dearly-beloved bed, be with my books and have the rest of my things with me again. I was due to come back to Rhodes in a month or two, but for several reasons, one being my mother injuring herself, I ended up flying over in October. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life, and from what I can remember it was more of an occasion to hope than to fear. I had never left my mother ‘permanently’ before, and I didn’t know how long it would be before I saw her again. Our farewell, needless to say, was fraught with unspoken words and emotions unexpressed; there were no words to communicate them in all their raw truth. There were tears for me, and for her, but I remember with surprising clarity that there was a well of calm in my soul. I must have felt ready to meet whatever challenges lay ahead, even if I wasn’t quite sure what they were, what they would involve or their toll on my spirit.

Returning and settling into the house didn’t take me very long. There was no welcoming party, my relationship with my mother’s family being what it is, but I dealt with that stoically. Eventually, my mother’s cousin saw me in the garden, and came to greet me with her girls. I swiftly became her third daughter who’d be invited over every midday for lunch and to spend time with them. It was comforting, and she became my surrogate mother. Not that I got a chance to miss my mother at all, at least initially, with her calling several times a day, to share her news and remind me to be careful and eat well and take care of the house and be tidy and a hundred other things a mother feels compelled to remind her daughter to do. However, the loneliness that plagued me in Sydney soon flitted across the globe and hunted me down in the village of Archaggelos.

Sure, I spent my day with three women who cared about me and wanted to make sure that I ate well and had company to help me pass the time, but I felt the dull ache of the lack of mental and emotion stimulation like a weight between my temples and somewhere deep in my belly, especially at night when I returned home, locked the door behind me, and stared into an empty house, the rooms of which were mismatched like some cut and paste work by a child; two modern rooms leading into three still holding the scent of a dying woman, neglect, and loneliness – that persistent, pervasive, omniscient spectre. I would lay in my bed, curled up in the foetal position, cradling my horse plushie and letting the emptiness flood me, feeling a complete lack of purpose, a detachment from the world, though I spent every day in the company of others. But they were different. They held opinions and expressed views I could not agree with, but had no choice but to pretend to. They would speak with complete devotion about the village and express an unassailable disregard of any other place and way of life in the world. Their way of life was the best, their food was the best, their entertainment was the best, their people were the best, and there was no disagreeing with them. Nothing could compare with their beloved village with its beloved inhabitants. And I would hear them, and see the flickering Sydney city lights in my mind, and I would ache.

One of the greater problems I was faced with, apart from a finite amount of funds to keep me going with completely uncertain employment prospects, was finding other people to spend time with apart from my mother’s cousin and her daughters. I fretted at the lack of variety and felt that my daily horizons needed to be broadened, at the very least, as much as the place and situation allowed. I had no idea how to do this. I was forever ‘the Australian girl’ who dressed ‘conservatively’ and wore the same pencil skirt every day; girls I passed on the street would eye me in an unfriendly manner; guys would either catcall or make lewd comments. How was I supposed to mix with these people? I find it difficult to make friends at the best of times, and the circumstances were not helping. The fact that I was of a more open mind than most, and didn’t feel the need to judge people immediately meant that I ended up befriending people who were ‘wrong’ for me, and who eventually proved to have nothing very much to offer me apart from making me the subject of gossip. ‘Why are you spending time with people like them?’ I would be asked. ‘They’re beneath you’. How was I to do that? People in the village have known each since infancy, and I was a newcomer. Older women and friends of my mother would be absolutely lovely to me, would always enquire about my mother and ask how I was and whether I was happy, but the people my age.. well, we were worlds apart. And there was nothing to remedy that. I spent every day knowing that I was being talked about, and almost certainly not in a positive way. Anything unfamiliar, different or which did not conform was unacceptable. That rule was absolute, and applied, whether I liked it or not, to me. Not knowing what to do with myself, and growing tired of spending every night staring at the ceiling listening to music and being savaged by loneliness, I took up the habit of going down to the local bar for a drink by myself. Well, was that a mistake. Because there it is seen as completely inappropriate for a girl to be going out by herself at night, and because it also meant that I attempted to drown my turbulent feelings in alcohol, which of course led to some rowdy nights, and to some loss of my inhibitions which I am not proud of. But I am a mere mortal, and was struggling.

Some months later, began a series of events which led me to where I am today. I met a boy, the eve before I was due to fly to London to start over, who convinced me to stay. Stay, he told me, and I will help you find a job, and I will support you and be there for you. Stay. And because I was anxious about the move, and my ability to create a life for myself in London, I stayed. He turned out, unsurprisingly, to be completely wrong for me, and to have a hidden past and a current marriage that he had failed to tell me about, so things ended almost immediately between us shortly after that. I had befriended the owner of the bar in which I met that boy, and a while later agreed to go out with him for dinner and drinks. It was quite possibly the most uncomfortable, awkward date I have ever experienced. Alcohol taken over time helped me loosen up a little, and by night he expressed how fond he was of me, that he would attempt to make more of his life now that he had met me, that he would help me find a job, and would support me and be there for me. Familiar words. I was unsure, but I smiled at him and thought that perhaps this might be it, what I had been waiting and hoping for for so long.

But it wasn’t.

After a few drinks at a few different bars in Rhodes town, we decided to visit the old town and he said he knew a great bar he’d take me to. Several potent drinks later, he was retching over my lap and had to be escorted outside to get some air, and I was left alone at the bar, staring into my drink and seeing my disappointment swirling at the bottom. This wasn’t right. It didn’t feel right, and didn’t look right, and I wasn’t impressed at all. I wanted to be at home, but that seemed very far away. Then, compelled by something unknown, I got out of my seat and went to speak to a boy who had been watching me throughout the evening. As I spoke to him I forgot about everything else. I forgot about my drunken date recovering outside in the street, about how much I wanted to go home, about everything. All that existed in that moment was that boy, in that bar. I was charmed, I wanted to see more of him, but something reminded me about my date in the street, and I reluctantly went to see how he was doing. Still very drunk, he was indignant that I had left him alone, so I agreed it was time to go home. Fortunately, I had exchanged contact details with the boy at the bar, and so was content to leave.

My date, of course, was in no state to take us home. I helped him down the street, reassuring him that I was not going to abandon him and that everything was ok between us despite his behaviour that night, and we got to just outside his car. It was immediately clear that he was about to be sick and so he sat down on the sidewalk and proceeded to throw up. I was despairing by this point. I didn’t know what to do and felt alone, uncomfortable and helpless. After he caught his breath and mumbled something at me, he decided to try and get us home, but ended up sitting in the driver’s seat, utterly incapable, with his head in my lap in the passenger seat. Slow, thick, hot panic trickled through my veins as the sky progressively lightened and the new day dawned. I stared out the window at the fountain in the yard across the street, not knowing what to do. So, I reached out to the boy I had met just before, and told him the situation. He was about to go to bed, but suggested that I ditch my date, get some sleep at his place and return home later. Politeness compelled me to refuse his offer at first, though my date snoring away and drooling in my lap filled me with pity. However, the day brightened and I accepted the boy’s offer. I needed to sleep and had no knowledge of the old town and its labyrinthine streets. I sent him a photo of the fountain across the street. He found me a few minutes later.

He rescued me. I fell in love with him instantly, and have not parted from him since. He is charming, attentive, affectionate, polite, kind, well-spoken and of a mind that made my own rejoice, someone I recognised as a kindred spirit. I saw in him everything I had always wanted in a partner, and it was effortless to love him. I felt protected and safe as never before; more, accepted, understood and appreciated, too. I was filled with the thrill of first love, and that thrill, though it has since settled over my skin like a warm, comforting blanket, and become as much of a part of me as my own flesh, every so often stirs and rouses me in a reminder, filling me with awe, wonder and gratitude again. I have never known anything like it, and though it is a cliché to say so, I can finally understand and appreciate all that stories, songs and films have said about love. That is definitely the beautiful part of my life now. I have a new home, a new life, a new group of people who love me and have vowed to protect and support and be there for me, and that is infinitely precious to me. But it would of course be too much for me to expect life to allow everything to fall into place all at once, wouldn’t it?

My relationship with my mother is the poorest it has ever been. She is grieved by the fact that I refuse to return to Australia to be with her, and demands that I leave this boy who has brought colour and passion and love into my life after a forever of bleak grey, and reassures me that life will bring me someone else when the time is right. I try to make her understand my thoughts and feelings so she knows I am happy and safe and loved, something that surely every parent must want for their child. Is that not so? It seems not. She reminds me that in Australia I will find a wonderful job and earn the money I need to live comfortably and have what I want and need and one day start a family. And that’s the one part of what she says that upsets me most, because I am here in Greece in the midst of what is surely its greatest crisis, with just over 11 euros to my name, and with doubtful employment prospects. I have struggled for months to find work, applying for various jobs and failing because I don’t speak the languages that are in demand here, or because I don’t have the right work experience. I have felt utterly hopeless, and unable to go out, buy things for myself, or even cover my basic daily needs. It has been distressing and humbling and has placed a strain on my relationship. And all this, while I think of the rich, independent and varied life I could be living in Sydney; that’s been the most difficult thing for me to deal with. Feeling as though I am a burden on the people around me makes me utterly miserable. I wasn’t raised to be a ‘freeloader’ and to be paid for by others, it has always been my dream to be independent. This thought, though quietened and dulled by the love that I finally have after so long, is ever present and continually niggles at me like a child at its mother’s hem. I little like the prospect of having to take on a job far ‘below’ my qualifications and experience, but I have to make concessions if I am to stay and build a life for myself here. And my relationship with my mother will have to be fixed somehow… but that is an old bruise that keeps being bumped and pushed and will linger and ache forever. I fear that that thread of the story will have an unhappy ending, with our two minds being so different and so apart, though perhaps that is something that can’t be helped. My life is my own to live, and nobody else’s, and not everything can become as I wish it to be, no matter how fiercely I may fight.

Comparison is the surest and greatest killer of happiness. If I am to make it here, and settle, I have to accept Rhodes for what it is and what it can offer me. I always suspected that my restlessness and desire for something ‘other’ would forever torment me, but I can’t forget that this is a unique and beautiful place, that here I have met the first man I have ever truly loved, that here my mother was born and raised and that my family, no matter how fragile our relationship, is here. Home is truly where we are loved and where we love, and not a physical place. Home is a state of mind and a concoction of emotions, and I have to allow myself to feel this, or I know I will never be happy and will constantly want to be elsewhere.That said, it is truly difficult to leave the place you were born and where you have spent 25 years, in which you have left people and places you love. I will always love Australia so much it makes my heart ache, and picture it when nostalgia and homesickness grip me. I will return one day, I am sure of it, even if only temporarily. It is a place unlike any other, where so many colours and flavours and sounds and sights and walks of life mix and merge. It is my home past. But my home present must be in my heart and in my new love until I am finally ready to give that title to Rhodes. I had always felt that there was something keeping me from leaving, something that kept me wanting to come back, something that made me weep forlornly every time I had to fly back to Australia, and being ruled by my heart, I have to trust in that devotion and persistent love. My roots may be in the soil of Sydney, but my flowering is here, on an island on the other side of the planet.

Uncertainty is a curious author of life, but it certainly makes for the richest tales. And something tells me that my story is just beginning to spread its wings to take flight.

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